Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Jul 06 2016

Variations On A Warbler Theme

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Connecticut, Mourning and MacGillivray's warblers (illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes in National Geographic, public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

Connecticut, Mourning and MacGillivray’s Warblers (illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When Louis Aggasiz Fuertes drew these birds they were all the same genus, Oporornis.  This made sense because Connecticut, mourning and MacGillivray’s warblers are similar in appearance and habits.  All three breed in northern forests where they are shy, secretive skulkers, nesting and feeding on the ground.

The Connecticut warbler (at top) is the hardest to find, so hard that his nest wasn’t discovered for 70 years after the species was described.  His breeding grounds in the bogs and moist forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, upper Michigan and central Canada are protected by mosquitoes!   Birds of North America says, “Its secretive behavior and preference for breeding habitat in remote areas with abundant insect life has made it very difficult to study.”  No kidding!

The mourning warbler (middle) has a wider distribution.  He breeds in second growth forests from British Columbia to Newfoundland and into the northern tier of Pennsylvania.  He’s one of the few warblers that benefits from human disturbance, preferring to nest in clearcuts 1 to 10 years old.  I usually see him during spring migration at Magee Marsh, Ohio.

MacGillivray’s Warbler (bottom) prefers second growth too, but he breeds at low to moderate elevations in the Rockies and Sierras.  I saw my first MacGillivray’s warbler (Life Bird!) in Glacier National Park in burned areas that are the dry mountain equivalent of a clearcut.

For many years the Oporornis genus calmly hummed along until two discoveries upset the apple cart.

Everyone thought these species never met on their breeding grounds … and they don’t … except for one spot in the Peace region of British Columbia near Dawson Creek where in 2009 Irwin et al. discovered that mourning and MacGillivray’s warblers hybridize.

Then in 2010 DNA evidence split the Oporornis genus.  Now the Connecticut warbler stands alone, though many websites and field guides have not caught up.

  • Old: Oporornis = [Connecticut, mourning, MacGillivray’s and Kentucky warblers].  Geothlypis = [common yellowthroat]
  • New: Oporornis = [Connecticut].  Geothlypis = [common yellowthroat, mourning, MacGillivray’s and Kentucky warblers]

In appearance and ancestry, these birds are variations on a warbler theme.


(illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes in National Geographic, public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

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Jul 01 2016

Dipper or Ouzel

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Question: What songbird …

  • Lives along streams in western North America?
  • Looks like a plump, dark gray robin with a short tail?
  • Bobs his tail like a Louisiana waterthrush?
  • Does “push-ups” like an angry wren?
  • Swims and dives as if he was a duck?
  • Has white nictitating membranes (third eyelids) for seeing underwater?
  • Eats only underwater prey?

Answer: A bird who has two names — the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) or water ouzel.

“Dipper” describes his behavior. While looking for prey from the water’s edge, he dips his body up and down as if doing push-ups on his legs. This action gives him two perspectives while looking through the water’s refraction: high view and low view.

“Ouzel” is an Old English word that now means “like a blackbird,” except that the water ouzel is not like any blackbird. 

In fact this water-loving species is unlike any songbird in North America. 

That’s why I came out west to see him at Glacier National Park.


p.s. Life Bird! I even saw one feeding his young, thanks to Denny Olsen, our Road Scholar birding guide.

(video from JVCdude on YouTube)

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Jun 30 2016

One Note

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Spring starts late in the northern Rockies so many birds are still singing here in Glacier National Park. Fortunately the varied thrush is one of them.

In the breeding season the varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) is a shy bird of mature western forests. He sings from the top of a conifer for 10 to 15 minutes but the trees are so tall that he’s hard to find. If he wasn’t singing we’d never know he’s there.

His song consists of one note that lasts two seconds.  He pauses 3 to 20 seconds and then sings again, a different note.  The disembodied sound echoes in the canyons.

Like all thrushes his syrinx allows him to blend two sounds so his note has a burry quality.  It sounds like this:

This song is unique in North America and easy to identify by ear.

Just one note.


(photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

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Jun 28 2016

There’s A Lot Less Singing

Yellow warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Yellow warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

It happens every year. By late June, birds are singing a lot less than they did a month ago. By mid July most birds are silent.

Find out why they stop singing in this article: Becoming Silent.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jun 21 2016

The Bird Who Sings All Night

Northern mockingbird, singing with wing flash (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northern mockingbird, singing and wing flashing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This month someone in my neighborhood complained he was kept awake at night by birds singing loudly in the dark.  Every song was different so he thought it was a variety of birds.  Who was making that racket?  It was only one northern mockingbird.

Mockingbirds are well known for nocturnal singing.  The majority of those who do it are lonely bachelors trying to attract a female.  They belt out their songs as loudly as possible in all directions and they prefer to do it at the most aggravating time for humans — midnight to 4:00am.  Studies have shown they sing more on moonlit nights and in well-lit areas.  Woe to city and suburban dwellers near street lights!

The video below, recorded at 2:00am, is understandably dark. The bird is exceptionally loud.

Over at my house there’s a mockingbird who’s definitely lonely!  Will he ever stop?

Birds of North America Online says:  “Typically, adults sing for approximately three fourths of the year (Feb through Aug, and late Sep to early Nov); occasionally sing during winter. … No nocturnal song occurs during the fall.”

So we wear earplugs to bed and pray that the mockingbird finds a mate.  Or we’ll have to wait until August.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original. Mockingbird audio by SevereTStormFan on YouTube)

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Jun 05 2016

Unusual Bird In The Mirror

Protonotary warbler "stuck in a car mirror" (screenshot from video by waterwarbler on Flickr)

Prothonotary warbler “stuck in a mirror” (screenshot from video by waterwarbler on Flickr)

I’ve seen robins, cardinals and mockingbirds attack car mirrors but never this!

Last Thursday waterwarbler captured video and photos of a prothonotary warbler fighting with his own reflection in DuPage County, Illinois.  Click on the screenshot above to see the video.  (Note: When another vehicle drives by the warbler is fine. He moves to the hood of the car.)

And check out this photo of warbler reflections: “Suddenly lots of PROWs“.   No wonder the bird is confused.


(screenshot from a video by waterwarbler on Flickr)

p.s. “PROW” is the four-letter code for prothonotary warbler.

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May 08 2016

Ostentatious Orioles

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Baltimore oriole (photo by Steve Gosser)

Baltimore oriole (photo by Steve Gosser)

Though it’s been less than two weeks since the first Baltimore orioles returned to western Pennsylvania, it didn’t take long for them to arrive in force and begin to establish their territories.

Now they’re everywhere and obvious — singing, chasing, chattering with annoyance, drowning out the songs of other birds.

As soon as they’ve paired up Baltimore orioles sing a lot less and become almost secretive.

Enjoy them now while they’re ostentatious.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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May 06 2016

Recognize Individual Blue Jays

Lesley The Bird Nerd” has photographed backyard birds for a long time.  She’s especially fond of blue jays and discovered that photos help her identify the jays as individuals.

Each blue jay has a different face!

Watch her video and learn how to do it yourself.  (You’ll need a camera.)


(video from LesleyTheBirdNerd on YouTube)

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May 01 2016

Let’s Get Outdoors in May

Golden ragwort (photo by Kate St. John)

Golden ragwort (photo by Kate St. John)

Oh my!  It’s May!

Last month I listed outings for the last week of April and included May 1.  Here’s a big list for the month of May.

Everyone is welcome to participate in these outings. Click on the links for directions, meeting places, what to bring, and phone numbers for the leaders.

2016: Date/Time Focus Location Leader & Link to more info
Sun. May 1, 8:00am All Day! Birds & Flowers Enlow Fork Extravaganza, Washington/Greene Counties Wheeling Creek Watershed Conservancy / BotSocWPA / Ralph Bell Bird Club
Wed. May 4, 8:00am Birds Linbrook Woodlands, Allegheny County Karyn Delaney & Bob Van Newkirk, 3RBC
Fri. May 6, 7:30am Birds Sewickley Park, Allegheny County Sheree Daugherty,  3RBC / Fern Hollow Nature Center
Sat. May 7, 10:00am Flowers Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, Beaver County Dianne Machesney, BotSocWPA
Sat. May 14, 7:30am Birds Barking Slopes, Allegheny County Todd Hooe, 3RBC Outing is limited to 12 people. See 3RBC link to reserve.
Sat. May 14, 10:00am – 3:00pm Flowers Mountain Maryland Native Plant Festival, New Germany State Park, Garrett County, MD see BotSocWPA website for info
Sat. May 14, 1:00pm Flowers Oil Creek State Park, Venango County Robert Coxe, BotSocWPA
Sun. May 15, time to be announced Flowers Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, Allegheny County BotSocWPA
Sun. May 15, 8:00am Birds Barking Slopes, Allegheny County Todd Hooe, 3RBC Outing is limited to 12 people. See 3RBC link to reserve.
Sat. May 21, 8:00am Birds Harrison Hills, Allegheny County Jim Valimont, 3RBC
Sat. May 21, 8:00am Birds Presque Isle State Park, Erie County Bob Van Newkirk, 3RBC
Sat. May 21, 10:00am Flowers Moraine State Park, Butler County see BotSocWPA website
Sun. May 22, 8:00am Birds Frick Park, Pittsburgh Aidan Place, 3RBC
Sun. May 22, 8:30am Birds & Flowers Schenley Park, Pittsburgh Kate St. John, Outside My Window


Don’t miss May’s excitement.

Let’s get outdoors!


(photo of golden ragwort by Kate St. John)

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Apr 26 2016

Did You Know That I Sing?

Female northern cardinal (photo by Steve Gosser)

Female northern cardinal (photo by Steve Gosser)

Now every morning we awake to birdsong.  All the singers are male, right?  Well … not really.

When I took a class on birdsong years ago I learned that female birds don’t sing. This information came from centuries of bird observations made in Europe and North America. Charles Darwin even used it to describe how song evolved in male birds to attract mates and compete for territory.

But in 2014 that “fact” was turned upside down.  71% of female songbirds do sing.  It’s just that most of them are tropical species.  No one had studied birdsong worldwide until a team lead by Karan Odom of University of Maryland, Baltimore County published their findings in Nature Communications in March 2014.

It’s true that almost all the singing birds in North America are male, but there are some exceptions.

Did you know that female northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) sing and they’re just as good at it as the males?

I was reminded of this last week when a female flew into a tree just over my head and sang a long sustained vibrato even faster than this:

Cardinal couples countersing to synchronize their pair bond.  Yesterday in Schenley Park I saw a female sing a phrase several times, then her mate matched it.

So when you hear a cardinal singing, take the time to find the singer.  It may be a lady!


p.s. Female rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) and black-headed grosbeaks (Pheucticus melanocephalus) sing, too.  They’re in the Cardinal Family.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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